Cajun Chutzpah & the O'Keefe Affair

The tempest surrounding James O'Keefe, who got arrested this week in New Orleans after bungling a plot to tamper with the phones in Senator Mary Landrieu's New Orleans offices, temporarily bumped President Obama from the top of the public statement defending his "credibility as a journalist." Say what you want about O'Keefe's bonafides as well as his tactics. But he was looking in the right place.

When they write the history of the backroom arrangements which accompanied the cobbling together of the health insurance reform proposal, no deal was more rank than the sweetener (see Page 432) that Landrieu demanded in return for her vote. The Democrats, who were desperate, held their nose and paid the bribe. When reporters later wrote that Louisiana would reap an extra $100 million as a result of Landrieu's labors, she made sure to correct them: the accurate number would be closer to $300 million. (After all, you gotta keep the folks in the home district happy.)

It's that sort of chutzpah which has led to revulsion at Washington's self-indulgence and corruption. But taking the money wasn't the end of it. Instead of blaming herself for demanding a $300 million favor paid for by taxpayers outside of Louisiana, which justly became the subject of late-night jokes, Landrieu is blaming Obama.

"He should have been more clear, and I am hoping that in the next week or two he will because that is what it is going to take if it is at all possible to get it done," Landrieu told reporters. "Mailing in general suggestions, sending them over the transom, is not necessarily going to work... moderate Senate Democrats, who give the Senate the 60 votes, come from states that have to appreciate a broad range of ideas."

`Wat dat?'

After reading that quote, it's tempting to give O'Keefe's explanation the benefit of the doubt.

"I learned from a number of sources that many of Senator Landrieu's constituents were having trouble getting through to her office to tell her that they didn't want her taking millions of federal dollars in exchange for her vote on the healthcare bill. When asked about this, Senator Landrieu's explanation was that, `Our lines have been jammed for weeks.' I decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for "weeks" because her phones were broken. In investigating this matter, we decided to visit Senator Landrieu's district office – the people's office – to ask the staff if their phones were working.'"

Well, almost. O'Keefe still has to learn what's in and out of bounds. Even in the pursuit of a juicy story. But give him this much: he was looking in the right place.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.